Sometimes some of the most remarkable stuff comes from some of the most unexpected places.
Luke Short was a Faro dealer and part-owner of the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona Territories, in 1882. The veteran of any number of successful gunfights, at 32 years of age Short was a seasoned gunman. On February 26th he was dealing cards at the Oriental opposite a local ne’er-do-well named Charlie Storms.
Storms was in his sixties and was likewise an experienced gunslinger with several notches to his gun. He had been present at the killing of Wild Bill Hickok six years prior and was rumored to have taken Wild Bill’s pistol as a souvenir in the mayhem that followed. This fateful day in February of 1882 Storms had been true to his name. He was naturally argumentative and had been up all night playing cards, sucking down cheap whiskey, and quarreling.
Bat Masterson was acquainted with both men. While no one went to bed with a truly clean conscience in Tombstone in the 1880s, Masterson’s friendship with both Short and Storms was genuine. He sincerely wished to play the role of peacemaker. When tempers flared he attempted an intervention.
The working theory is that Storms simply misjudged Short. Masterson later wrote that he thought that Charlie felt Luke was the sort he could smack around with impunity. However, there is a timeless axiom among gunfighters. One should never underestimate one’s enemies. Storms would live to regret his temper.
Storms vociferously accused Short of cheating. Masterson intervened before things got out of control and moved the intoxicated man outside the establishment. Once he had Storms safely in the street he tried to calm Short down as well. Throughout it all Dr. George Goodfellow MD sat at a nearby table nursing his drink.
All involved were then surprised to see the drunken Storms barge back towards Short. He pushed his friend Masterson aside, took hold of Short’s right ear in his left hand, and made for his gun, a cut-down .45-caliber Colt Peacemaker Sheriff’s Model.
Whether the issue was decided by Short’s greater skill, his relative youth, or simply the fact that the younger man’s judgment and reflexes were not so impaired as were those of his intoxicated opponent, Luke drew faster. He pressed the muzzle of his own Peacemaker against Storm’s left chest, thumbing the hammer back as it came to bear, and fired a heavy 255-grain lead slug straight through the man’s heart. He cycled his revolver and shot the hapless malcontent a second time as he fell backward. The discharge of the weapon was so close and so violent that it set Charlie’s shirt on fire.
The two rounds knocked Storms rearward some twelve feet and onto his back. Along the way Storms got off two shots of his own from his stubby single-action pistol, neither of which connected. Though it took a moment for his brain to get the memo, Storms was dead when he hit the ground.
Dr. Goodfellow was nearby watching everything with a detached professional interest. Goodfellow was a fascinating character who lived in the company of fascinating characters. The good doctor was at the time the world’s foremost authority on gunshot wounds. Living and practicing as he did in the gunfighting capital of the American West he had ample opportunity to study such stuff.
Charlie Storms was beyond saving. Short’s heavy bullet tore all the way through his heart and flattened on his vertebral column. What surprised Dr. Goodfellow, however, was that, unlike other chest wounds he had attended, that of Charlie Storms reflected a rather bloodless slaughter. Once he retired Storms’ cooling corpse to the undertaker’s office and got him disassembled he uncovered the reason. His discovery would shape the tactical landscape to this very day.
Serendipitous Body Armor
It seems when Charlie Storms had set out the morning prior he had tucked a modest silk handkerchief into his left breast pocket. Short’s heavy bullet had center-punched the dainty accessory. However, instead of tearing through as would certainly have been the case with cotton or wool, the silk encapsulated the penetrating missile and accompanied it into the wound. Dr. Goodfellow was amazed to find that the handkerchief was not torn or otherwise violated.
Goodfellow attended another unfortunate gentleman who caught a load of buckshot from a 12-bore to the face. This poor slob took several shots that punched through his sinuses and facial bones before expeditiously snuffing his mortal glimmer. However, one of the heavy .33-caliber balls caught the man square on his silk hatband and failed to penetrate. Had that been the sole missile it would have precipitated a mighty headache and left an impressive mark but should not have killed the man. Dr. Goodfellow was a smart guy, and these observations lit his fuse.
Both men in this torrid little tale apparently carried their own variations of Samuel Colt’s classic 1873 Peacemaker revolvers. The 1873 was a cartridge-firing evolution of the earlier cap and ball wheelguns with which both sides prosecuted the American Civil War. The single-action 1873 remains a respectable combat tool even today.
After a literal lifetime of study, I cannot seem to tease out the secret sauce with which Sam Colt infused his 19th-century revolvers. The graceful arching grip lacks stippling or finger grooves at all yet it fits my own greasy mitts better than any modern plastic pistol. The massive spurred hammer looks like it would catch on absolutely everything, yet I can run this old single action almost as well as I might more modern iron. The swinging gate reloading system is undeniably laborious, particularly if you find yourself in a rush, but the gun is otherwise remarkably efficient.
Most 1873 Peacemakers came from the factory in 4.75, 5.5, and 7.5-inch barrel lengths. We presume that of Luke Short had one of the more abbreviated tubes. Charlie Storms’ gun is described in reliable sources as a particularly short-barreled version.
Short-barreled Peacemakers typically sported barrels of four inches or less. Sometimes they lacked forward sights and ejector rods. These stubby little wheelguns were typically known informally as the Sheriff’s Model, the Banker’s Special, or the Shopkeeper.
Then as now shorter barrels equaled better concealment but lower velocities. In the sorts of contact-range engagements described here, losing a little velocity among friends didn’t make much difference. However, concealability and accessibility could determine who thrived and who died.
The Rest of the Story
Marshal Ben Sippy arrested Luke Short and accused him of murder. Mostly due to the testimony of Bat Masterson he was released once the sordid episode was appreciated as a clear-cut case of self-defense. Short, experienced gunman that he was, ultimately died at age 39 from Bright’s Disease, a particularly insidious kidney malady that likely would have been a pretty horrid way to go in the days before decent medical care.
Dr. Goodfellow was a true renaissance man widely published in the medical journals of the day. In 1887 he penned The Impenetrability of Silk to Bullets for the Southern California Practitioner. He was the first surgeon to document the need for an exploratory laparotomy in the case of gunshot wounds to the abdomen. His groundbreaking work in this field shapes surgical decision making to this very day.
Goodfellow conducted extensive primary research on the bites and venom of Gila Monsters and rattlesnakes.
He also produced one of the first reliable maps of an earthquake fault zone. In his free time, he helped negotiate the end of the Spanish American War. Dr. Goodfellow was indeed a fascinating guy.
In 1882 few embraced the germ theory of disease, so sawbones surgeons of the era would explore wounds and attempt to retrieve bullets using nothing more than their own filthy fingers. Such primitive technique literally killed President James Garfield after Charles Guiteau shot him in the belly in 1881.
By contrast, Dr. Goodfellow would sterilize his hands and instruments with whiskey and lye soap before an operation and found that he enjoyed markedly higher survival rates than did his non-sterile counterparts.
Goodfellow’s research into silk as a bullet-resistant material led to rudimentary soft body armor. These vests were made from multiple layers of silk, itself already just stupid expensive, so they could cost upwards of $800 a piece back in the day. That’s about $50,000 in today’s dollars. There is a persistent tale that Archduke Ferdinand owned one of these vests on the day he was shot yet failed to wear it for reasons lost to history. This oversight precipitated the First World War.
Ultimately silk was replaced by more advanced synthetic materials that eventually led to today’s Kevlar and Spectra fibers. Nowadays nobody in any developed country heads into harm’s way without sheathing him or herself within some kind of body armor. The number of lives saved is truly incalculable.
The fascinating bit is that it all started with a gory disagreement over a card game, an inquisitive surgeon, and a dainty silk handkerchief.